Landscape Urbanism…Decoded?

From World Landscape Architecture by Damian Holmes

The Master Plan for the Central Delaware reflects an increasingly mainstream acceptance of landscape as the framework for urban design. image © Kieran Timblerlake / Brooklyn Digital Foundry

The Master Plan for the Central Delaware reflects an increasingly mainstream acceptance of landscape as the framework for urban design. image © Kieran Timblerlake / Brooklyn Digital Foundry

“What is landscape urbanism? Is it a method, a practice, or a result? What does this term mean to contemporary practitioners of landscape architecture?”

These were questions that inspired the latest installation of OLIN’s Theoretical Symposium, which I moderated with my colleague Katy Martin. Katy and I both knew that this would be a daunting topic, raising all manner of opinions and added questions, so we broke up the discussion into a few key stages. In the days before the symposium even kicked off, we posed these questions to the studio and collected the answers. On the day of the event, we started things off not with the questions, but with a history of “landscape urbanism”—the people, projects, and practices that influenced the concept and led to the coining and popularization of the term itself. We then suggested four definitions of landscape urbanism and used each as a framework for the studio’s theories and questions:

1.) Landscape urbanism as diagnosis
2.) Landscape urbanism as framework and process
3.) Landscape urbanism as green infrastructure 
4.) Landscape urbanism as landscape + urbanism

Our format was straightforward, and our goal was clear: to see if our studio could help clarify a potent but increasingly elusive term in landscape discourse.


The development of landscape urbanism as a theory and practice is the result of an evolving body of work by a number of people. In the 1870s, forefathers of landscape architecture such as Fredrick Law Olmsted and Ebenezer Howard demonstrated how the many environmental problems that plagued American cities could be mitigated by planned open space which served both infrastructural and recreational purposes. In the 1960s, Ian McHarg wrote Design with Nature, the first book to describe an ecologically sound approach to the planning and design of communities. However, it was not until the late 1990s that Charles Waldheim popularized the term landscape urbanism. In his 2006 book, The Landscape Urbanism Reader, Waldheim defines the term as follows: “Landscape urbanism describes a disciplinary realignment currently underway in which landscape replaces architecture as the basic building block of contemporary urbanism.”

Landscape Urbanism as Diagnosis
Landscape urbanism as diagnosis relates specifically to Charles Waldheim’s academic analysis of post-industrial North American cities, described in many of Waldheim’s lectures and writings, such as his 2001 book Stalking Detroit. Waldheim describes the existing condition of metropolitan dispersion, which he argues has been caused by the decline of manufacturing, decentralization of transportation, and continued suburbanization. The term further recognizes the emergence of un-designed landscapes in the voids left by dispersion and questions whether the redevelopment of a dense, architecturally defined urban core is possible or even desirable in a declining, post-industrial city like Detroit.


A figure ground of Detroit’s increasingly porous urban core illustrates the reality of decline and dispersion to which early landscape urbanists like Charles Waldheim were responding. Source: Stalking Detroit, Waldheim et al, 2001

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Green Infrastructure at OLIN .

Olin’s release to the public of their Green Infrastructurepaper and agenda, while largely a advertorial and a punt for business, highlights the importance of quantifying the benefits of green infrastructure improvements in terms of both urban sustainability and climate change mitigation. Read about OLIN’s approach to Green Infrastructure in their new journal.

Green infrastructure is about more than just sustainability—it’s about access to public space, and the quality of the experience from every angle, be it social, economic, or ecological. We design parks and plazas, but what we’re really doing is creating social attractors within a larger network formed by parks, infrastructure, architecture and communities. And because of the resources and specific talents of the team at OLIN, we’re able to make everything we do results-oriented. It’s like the city is our lab.”Steve Benz, OLIN Partner & Director of Green Infrastructure  outlines olin’s strategic intent in the brochure:

Living City Revealed: A 25-year build-out of a 100% renewable energy, 100% water balanced eco-district. OLIN

‘In our current era, we can’t just design places that are aesthetically pleasing or functional—designers of the built environment are challenged to explore the multifarious and interconnected relationships of ecology, economy, politics, social justice, energy, resources and health. Contemporary design solutions demand the incorporation of both function and form within sites; resilient, performative landscapes are better able to respond to the complex demands for the future lives of our cities. In order to develop truly sustainable solutions, OLIN’s Green Infrastructure approach uses measurable criteria for social, ecological and economic performance. Metrics act as a mechanism to evaluate a design’s performance throughout the design process; recalibration is necessary to ensure that a project’s sustainability outcomes actually meet goals set in early design stages. Metrics are a means to inform the design of dynamic systems which comprise cities and holds design professionals accountable through a rigorous methodology.’

The blocks were once composed of a tight-knit street fabric of row homes and masonry commercial uses, all within close proximity to breweries. After Prohibition and the rise of the suburbs, the neighborhood declined into a hodge-podge of viable homes, derelict buildings and vacant lots awaiting a new future.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro Beat Out Strong Competition at Aberdeen City Garden Project

From Archinect a multilevel interconnected web surface is created as a structural response to the multiplicity and heterogenous needs of a dense  urban area brings an integral thickened surface – Stan Allen’s ‘Mat Urbanism: The Thick 2-D” With a now familiar idea diagram from a rubber band  the design displays D&S’s out of the box thinking.
Aerial view of the winning proposal by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Keppie Design and OLIN (Image: Courtesy of Malcolm Reading Consultants)
Aerial view of the winning proposal by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Keppie Design and OLIN (Image: Courtesy of Malcolm Reading Consultants)

Diller Scofidio + Renfro have won the Aberdeen City Garden Project design competition which seeks to transform the center of Aberdeen, Scotland. New York City-based DS+R collaborated with local Scottish architects, Keppie Design and landscape architects OLIN, on this project and emerged as winners from a head-to-head race with another finalist team led by Foster + Partners. —

Image: Courtesy of Malcolm Reading Consultants


Malcolm Reading, the competition organizer, commented:

‘This is such an exciting outcome and a great coup for the city. This ingenious and inspiring design for Aberdeen’s key public space gives the city a new social landscape but one rooted in its extraordinarily rich heritage and natural assets.

‘The runner-up concept, by Foster and Partners was outstanding, elegant and thoughtful, but did not, in the end, persuade the Jury that it could match the promise of connectivity, excitement and spatial diversity of the winning scheme.’

Check the Bustler article to also see the projects of the five shortlisted teams led by Foster + Partners, Gustafson Porter, Mecanoo, Snøhetta & Hoskins, and West 8.

LABash 2011 Conference: David Rubin – OLIN via LAND Reader

Posted by Damian Holmes in LAND Reader

Having earned his degree in fine art, David ultimately integrated his interests in both art and the natural world through landscape architecture, culminating in a master’s degree from Harvard University. His background allows him to use landscape to transform social and environmental systems. Current projects include Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Lenfest Plaza in Philadelphia; guidelines and designs for Wishard Hospital in Indianapolis; and Washington Canal Park and Potomac Park Levee in Washington, DC. David and his fellow partners at OLIN received the 2008 Landscape Design Award from the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum for their dedication to innovative excellence in landscape design and sustainability.

His presentation was recorded on Saturday, March 26
LABash 2011 was held March 25-26 in West Lafayette, Indiana at Purdue University and was hosted by Purdue University’s Landscape Architecture program.